Iowa’s 175th anniversary gets the side-eye: Being Black in Iowa is complicated

OPINION: Iowa became the nation’s 29th state 175 years ago on Dec. 28, 1846.

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Opinion: I’ve read heartfelt tweets and sentimental essays about the 175th anniversary of Iowa’s statehood. I’ve scrolled through photos of Iowa’s covered bridges, green farmland and the iconic golden dome of the state capitol, but Iowa’s birthday gets a meh from me. Celebrating is not what comes to mind when I think about this state and its treatment of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). What is a state if not how it treats its people?

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A list by 24/7 Wall St of the 20 worst cities for Black Americans contain three Iowa cities: Davenport, Des Moines, and Waterloo, ranked 13, 11, 6, respectively. Growing up, I often questioned my parents about why their parents decided to live here. Why couldn’t they have settled in Kansas City, Missouri, or kept going north to Minneapolis, Minnesota, I’d lament. Why Iowa?

Iowa Flag. Image via Canva.

My indifference to Iowa’s birthday has a lot to do with growing up Black in the state’s predominantly white spaces where overt and covert discrimination is commonplace. As a Black woman, I’ve endured outright discrimination and experienced an unhealthy share of microaggressions. Those microaggressions have cost me jobs, promotions and opportunities.

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission processed 1,778 discrimination complaints last year, up 9.4%. The majority of complaints centered around public accommodation, housing and employment. The complaints represent those who sought the agency for justice. What about those who aren't represented in the case filings? They likely just kept working or changed jobs, or scrambled for a different place to live. If they were denied a loan, maybe they tried a new bank. Or maybe they gave up on whatever plans, goals or dreams they had.

DAVENPORT, IA – NOVEMBER 25: Welcome to Iowa sign in Davenport, Iowa on November 25, 1981. (Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

This state’s saving grace for me is my diverse, aging eastside neighborhood. I belong here. I love my block. I choose to be here. My neighborhood is not filled with neat nondescript suburban homes. The homes here are older and some are even dilapidated. Black, Mexican, Asian and white children play in the neighborhood and line up along street corners to catch school buses. My neighbors work, go to religious services and celebrate birthdays and quinceañeras in their backyards.

Outsiders have often asked me what it’s like living in Iowa. I’ve always given the same answer: It’s relatively clean and relatively safe. I’ve often advised new high school graduates to attend college elsewhere and take their talents somewhere they would be embraced.

Iowa is a place where one’s race intersects with everything:

  • The persistent illusion of 'Iowa Nice.' Is it nice that for 25 years, a quarter of Iowa’s prison population is Black, but Blacks only makeup 4% of the state’s population? Is it nice that Black girls were nine times more likely to be arrested at school compared to whites? Retire that phrase.
  • People describe Iowa as 'lily white.' Iowa is among the seven whitest states, and I guess lily is a special kind of white. Imagine what repeatedly hearing that feels like to Black children, youth and adults. If you’re struggling to figure it out, the word is erased.
  • Microaggressions abound. I’ve gotten used to white women clutching their purses when I walk by; being followed through countless stores; hearing the lock of a car door when I near; hearing how locs and other natural hairstyles are "disgusting;" hearing disparaging racial remarks about the eastside or other areas with high Black populations; hearing a co-worker during a presentation describe someone as a “scary Black man;” reading an email after the murder of George Floyd from the CEO of a national company situated in downtown Des Moines state: “All people matter.”

Points of Pride

Despite the challenges, Blacks have made an indelible mark on this state. Plenty of evidence exists just driving around Des Moines. The sculpture “A Monumental Journey” sits near the corner of Second and Grand avenues and marks the founding of the National Bar Association by 12 Black lawyers in 1925 here. A building and park are named after civil rights pioneer Edna Griffin, who held protests and sit-ins at Katz Drug Store, which refused service to Blacks in 1948, and whom I interviewed and wrote about for the Des Moines Register shortly before she died in 2000. The replica of a World War II plane near the Des Moines International Airport honors Iowa's Tuskegee airmen. There are many, many other examples across the state.

Replica of World War II aircraft flown by the Iowa Tuskegee Airmen. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Most Blacks who worked hard for their families and carved out lives in Iowa amidst racism and discrimination didn't receive accolades and sculptures, but if anything about this state is great, it’s the strength they had to persevere here. Blacks have aways pressed for change and continue to do so today amidst attempts to harm Black voting rights and whitewash history.

Hidden Black history

Recently, I wrote two stories about Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn and his great-great grandfather, Harrison Tilford Gash, a Civil War veteran who escaped slavery and was a member of the 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa (60th U.S. Infantry). I went to the State Historical Building to see the regiment’s hand-sewn silk battle flag. I was intrigued because I’d never heard of the regiment.

1863 Civil War battle flag sewn by Black women from Keokuk and Muscatine for the 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa (60th U.S. Infantry). Photo by Black Iowa News.

I felt such pride looking at the flag and thinking about the Black women from Keokuk and Muscatine who had 158 years ago created a beautiful flag and were active participants in seeking freedom for Black people – for me. So many Black stories are left out of the history books – stories of Black women, men and children and the lives they forged. Black contributions have been erased and downplayed.

Image what pride Blacks might feel if those stories were told and our voices and contributions were amplified? Instead, with HF802 last year and current book banning efforts, white Iowa legislators work to effectively whitewash the telling of history with the support of their white constituents. My fellow Iowans.

Des Moines skyline. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Writing about Wilburn’s great-great grandfather, I also learned that that six years before Iowa became a state, 188 Black people (16 of whom were enslaved) called Iowa, a territory at that time, home. Black people have been here since before Iowa was even a thing. After the Civil War, the Black veterans returned home and created communities in towns all across Iowa. Now, 175 years after its founding, 131,000 Blacks reside in the state. This is our home – my home – even though it can sometimes feel like the welcome mat is invisible.

Banner: 'Future' mural by visual artists Jill Wells and Marissa Hernandez at the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families in Des Moines. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Iowa is celebrating its 175th anniversary. What makes you proud to be a Black Iowan? What makes you proud of Iowa? Share in the comments.

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